Ten things foreigners do that make Swiss people feel really uncomfortable
From oversharing to talking about your income, here are ten sure-fire ways to make the Swiss feel awkward.
Switzerland is a complicated country with three major language groups and plenty of regional differences in terms of culture and values.
But while it's hard to generalise, there are certain guaranteed ways to make the Swiss feel awkward. Here are nine things that foreigners do that make people in Switzerland uncomfortable at best – and downright annoyed at worst.
Not paying for peoples' drinks on your birthday
In Switzerland, if you invite people out to dinner or drinks on your birthday, you are expected to pay for everyone. In fact, the very term “invite” (einladen in German, or inviter in French) carries the meaning that you will pay.
On other social occasions, if someone offers to pay for you, the done thing is to protest and say something along the lines of "No, no, I can pay", even if the protest is just waved away.
When it comes to splitting bills, this is less common in Switzerland than in somewhere like the UK. What you are very unlikely to see, though, is people fighting over a few cents here or there in terms of who pays for what.
The Swiss tend to take a slowly-slowly approach to making friends and can appear cold and reserved when you first get to know them (although once you have built up a friendship it could well be for life).
Be patient: remember that you are playing a long game.
Not taking your shoes off inside
In a country where extreme cleanliness is the norm, and where snow and mud make up part of the physical environment, taking your shoes off when you enter a house or apartment makes perfect sense. But for a lot of people from other countries, the idea of removing your footwear and walking into someone’s house in your tatty socks is downright strange.
If you do go into a Swiss home with your shoes on, however, be prepared for some strange looks. You may even be asked to remove your shoes and put on slippers provided by your host.
Being too polite
The Swiss are bemused (and amused) by the excessive politeness of the British with their constant use of “sorry” and “excuse me” in all sorts of situations, so expect to get sideways glances or incomprehension if you apologize for bumping into someone on a busy street.
By the same token, don’t expect someone in Switzerland to automatically say sorry to you if they bump into you on, say, a crowded train, or any similar situation where minor contact is all but unavoidable. The Swiss aren’t being rude, they just have a different concept of personal space.
Turning up fashionably late
No list about the Swiss would be complete without a mention of punctuality. While being on time for informal social occasions is perhaps not quite as critical as it was in the days before mobile phones, people in Switzerland would still rather turn up somewhere early than risk being late.
And if you get an invitation to someone’s house – especially for a meal – it is best to arrive on time, or as close to on time as you can humanly manage. There really is no such thing being fashionably late in Switzerland.
When people in Switzerland meet for the first time, they generally shake hands or – rarely – kiss each other three times on the cheek (business etiquette is another matter). What they don’t do is lean in for a big hug. Doing this is likely to startle a Swiss person.
Talking about how much you earn
The topic of salaries and incomes remains taboo for many people in Switzerland and it’s not unusual to work next to someone for years without knowing how much they earn.
Although this is slowly changing – there have even been campaigns calling for people to talk about how much they earn in a bid to increase wage transparency – you could be hit with awkward silence if you bring up this subject with a Swiss person.
Changing your plans at the last minute
While every person is different, the Swiss are basically a nation of planners and often have social calendars that get filled several weeks in advance.
The upshot is, if you do make plans with a Swiss friend for an evening three weeks into the future, it’s probably not a good idea to call up a couple of hours beforehand and suggest postponing for a day or two because you’re feeling tired.
Complaining about church (or cow) bells
For better or worse, church bells belong to the Swiss soundscape. They also have a habit of pealing loudly at all times of day, including very early in the morning – something that plenty of foreigners in Switzerland get annoyed about.
Incessant cow (or goat, or sheep) bells are also a fact of life in some areas, even in town and cities. But complaining about them can be met with looks of blank incomprehension or even hostility by Swiss people who might see whinging about these bells as an attack on Swiss traditions and culture.
Using du/tu all the time
It's easy to mix up the formal and informal versions of "you" in German, French or Italian, especially when you first arrive in Switzerland.
Using Sie/vous/lei when it should be du/tu isn't too much of a crime. It might make someone think you're overly polite or formal, but you won't do too much damage.
Making the mistake the other way around, however, and addressing a superior at work, or a stranger with an over familiar du/tu could definitely create some awkward situations.
If you are not sure, play safe and go with the more formal option.
Read also: 43 habits you pick up living in Switzerland